The Doctor’s Wife

Ever since Kae was a little girl, she was fascinated by the Hanaoka family, especially Otsugi, a beautiful woman who married into the family. So Kae was delighted when Otsugi approached her family to ask if Kae would marry her son, Umpei. For the first few years of the marriage, Umpei is in medical school, and Kae lives with his family. All is well, and Kae feels at home with the family. But when Umpei returns home, a competition ensues between Otsugi and Kae, with each one seeking to be the center of Umpei’s life and affection.

Sawako Ariyoshi based this 1966 novel (translated from Japanese by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Stiller Kostant) on the life of Hanaoka Seishū, a pioneer in the treatment of breast cancer and the first surgeon to use general anesthesia (in 1804). In the novel, he owes his success to Kae and Otsugi, but the book is not an inspirational story of the great women behind the man. Instead, it’s a story of how, in a society centered on men’s success, women have no choice but to prostrate themselves before men, being willing to give up even their lives in order to gain the affection and respect of the men in power.

This is a good (and short) book, but I found it extremely disturbing. There are some sections involving animal experimentation that were very difficult to read, although I could certainly understand their importance to the story (and to the work Seishū was doing). The role of the women in the work rattled me considerably, especially because it wasn’t clear that they cared about the work so much as about winning the war of reputation and Seishū’s affection. Late in the book, one of the characters says, “I think this sort of tension among females … is … to the advantage … of … every male.” And that’s exactly how it works in this book. Yet the women are (or claim to be) happy to do it.

I’m still pondering some of the differences in Seishū’s treatment of his mother versus his wife. He gives his wife more of what the two women say they want, but, given that what they want is not good for them, he’s actually kinder to his mother. So what does that say about his feelings for the two women? Does he respect Kae’s strength more than his mother’s? Or does he care more about his mother’s life? Would he even be able to articulate why he makes the choices he does?

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House of Broken Angels

My reading of contenders for the 2019 Tournament of Books continues with this much-lauded novel by Luis Alberto Urrea. Alas, although I’m not sure if it’s my mood or the book itself, this ended up being not a great book for me.

The novel is set in San Diego, where Big Angel, the patriarch of a large Mexican-American family is preparing to die, not long after the death of his mother. In fact, he and his family decide to combine what will most likely be his very last birthday party with the funeral of his mother, holding both events on the same weekend. A strange choice, perhaps, but the pragmatic side of me appreciates it. Plus, there’s something lovely about the combination of celebrating a life after its end and celebrating a life nearing its end. As it turns out Big Angel’s party gets most of the emotional weight. It’s the second event, he’s the center of the story, and he’s still around to be part of it.

The family is a large one, and the reader is thrown right into the melee, as Big Angel and his closest relatives prepare to go to the funeral. It took me a while to get a handle on all the relationships, especially because some of the characters are called by nicknames. I ended up making a little family tree, just to keep track. And even then, once the extended family arrives, there are people whose relationship to the core group is never made clear. Although this made the book a challenge to read, it didn’t really turn me off of it. I like big family stories, and I appreciated the many different aspects of the Mexican-American experience we could see through the many family members.

However, I ended up getting tired of the depiction of women, who are unfailingly nurturing or entirely sexual. It’s very much a book where the women feel like they’re filtered through a male gaze. Some of these depictions, especially that of Perla, Big Angel’s wife, are tender and sweet, but I would have liked to have seen at least one woman whose life didn’t seem to revolve around taking care of or having sex with the men in the book. And, for the most part, I don’t get what makes these men soooo appealing.

I did like the story of Little Angel, Big Angel’s younger half-brother (they share a father, but Little Angel’s mother was white). There are some interesting things about identity going on in his story, and I appreciated Urrea’s depiction of how his unease with being among the rest of the family interacted with his desire to be there and the warm (but uneasy) welcome he receives.

There’s also a subplot involving gang violence that never made much sense to me, although it was important in leading up to the book’s closing sequence. And there’s a queer son who is, unfortunately, sidelined for most of the book. I would have liked to hear more about him and the family’s attitude toward him. That thread is wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews that describe this book as messy but ultimately magnificent. For me, the mess of it was a little too much. There are some great moments — the miniature city Big Angel built with a neighbor, the parrot, Big Angels funeral commentary — but the novel as a whole didn’t hang together for me. I think I would have liked this a lot more if it had been a book of short stories about the family. There would have been less need to impose a single (uneven) narrative thread over the whole thing, and the funeral and party could still have bookended the collection. And the great character moments and funny and sweet incidents could each have had a time to shine.

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My Mother’s House and Sido

These two novella/memoirs by Colette are fine examples of well-written books that appear to do exactly what they set out to do but that still fail to engage me. I can see that the writing is lovely and effective at conjuring up a sense of place and character, but I just couldn’t bring myself to ever care very much. Because there’s just no narrative through line to capture my interest.

My Mother’s House (translated from French by Una Vincenzo Troubridge and Enid McLeod consists of a series of short vignettes, most about four pages long, about Colette’s childhood, with a focus on her mother, known to the family as Sido. The second book in the volume, Sido (translated by Enid McLeod), consists of three character studies—of Colette’s mother, father, and brothers.

The writing really is the best thing about these books. Here, for instance, is a paragraph from a story about the animal life in Colette’s childhood home:

All was faery and yet simple among the fauna of my early home. You could never believe that a cat could eat strawberries? And yet, because I have seen him so many times, I know that Babou, that black Satan, interminable and sinuous as an eel, would carefully select in Madame Pomie’s kitchen garden the ripest of the Royal Sovereigns or the Early Scarlets. He is was, too, who would be discovered poetically absorbed in smelling newly-opened violets.

It paints a vivid picture, but that’s almost all the book is, vivid pictures that don’t go anywhere much. Each vignette operates not like a short story but like a painting, a moving painting, yes, but one without much action.

I don’t generally consider myself a person who needs a lot of plot to enjoy a book, but I’ve come to appreciate a good story more and more in recent years. And a total lack of story just doesn’t work much.

So what I’m wondering now is whether this style is typical of Colette’s work. Do the Claudine books, for example, have more of a story? I liked the writing enough that I’m open to trying more, but if all her books are like this, she may not be a writer for me.

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Love in a Cold Climate

Nancy Mitford’s 1949 follow-up to The Pursuit of Love is more of a companion piece to the earlier novel than a sequel. She fills in a few gaps in the narrative here are there — like narrator Fanny’s own marriage — but she mostly tells a different story entirely. And like in The Pursuit of Love, Fanny is focusing on the life of a relative, but her subject this time, Polly, is quite different from Linda, the subject of The Pursuit of Love.

Polly is the only child of the Earl of Montdore. She’s extremely beautiful, and one would assume she’d be a popular marital candidate during her first season in London, but her quiet nature keeps potential suitors from taking a interest. Lady Montdore is extremely vexed about the situation, and she treats Polly badly as a result. But then Polly lands on a man who, in her mother’s eyes, is the worst possible suitor.

This book feels more serious than The Pursuit of Love in part because the situation within the family feels so much more dreadful. The Radletts are able to cheerfully adapt to their father’s eccentricities, but Polly lacks that ability — and Lady Montdore is not merely eccentric. She’s almost entirely wrapped up in herself, something that becomes evident later in the book when she begins to take advantage of Fanny’s own kindness.

Toward the end, the book gets lighter as a new family member, Cedric Hampton, appears. The obviously gay Cedric turns Lady Montdore into his own personal project, making her over and doting on her in a way that she finds delightful. Just about everyone, including Fanny, enjoys Cedric’s company, although Fanny’s husband is a little suspicious of his motives. Cedric is fascinated by Polly, and I wish there had been more time to flesh out their relationship. The novel ends abruptly, just as things are getting interesting in that area. And Polly’s story is not the main subject of the next book Don’t Tell Alfred, so I suppose what happens between them, and what happens between Polly and her mother, will have to be left to my imagination.

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The Golden State

Daphne, the narrator of Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, is exhausted and frustrated and in terrible need of a break. She’s been raising her daughter, Honey, on her own since her husband, Engin, was barred from entry to the United States and forced to return to Turkey because of what amounted to a clerical error that seems impossible to resolve. At work, she’s having to manage a crisis involving the death of a student while on a research trip to Turkey. She’s just feeling done with it all. So she packs up her 18-month-old daughter, Honey, and heads out of San Francisco and up to Altavista, to stay in her grandmother’s mobile home, which Daphne inherited from her mother.

Kiesling’s writing here is excellent. It’s in a stream-of-consciousness style, but not so elaborate and discursive that it’s hard to follow. The style mostly takes the form of long, unpunctuated sentences, which gives the sense of Daphne’s constant activity. Granted, some of the activity in Altavista includes sitting on the porch and smoking, but her mind is never off. Yet, despite the constant thinking, she never actually sits down and thinks through the decisions she needs to make. It’s like she’s stuck, always spinning, never moving. A familiar state for a lot of people.

Daphne and Honey are the book’s central characters, and their relationship is a mix of great love and great frustration — also familiar. Engin makes appearances in Skype conversations, and Daphne gets to know a couple of other people during her short time in Altavista. Cindy, her neighbor, is part of a local separatist movement. And Alice is an elderly woman who wistfully recalls a visit to Turkey when she hears Daphne speaking Turkish to Engin during her Skype calls in the local coffee shop (the only place she can get a good signal). I could have done without Cindy and that whole storyline, but I liked Alice and would have liked to know more about her. (Although more might have been too much. In this case, there’s perhaps just enough left to the imagination.)

I really liked how well this book depicts what it’s like to feel stuck in a situation, even when, perhaps, there’s a way out that you just can’t see. The book’s focus is on Daphne and the experience of being a working mother on her own, but Cindy and Alice are also stuck in situations that don’t feel right to them. It’s a problem that I imagine most people can relate to. And, even if you can’t, Kiesling’s rendering of her inner monologue makes her thinking feel real and true.

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The Pursuit of Love

Fanny, the narrator of this 1945 novel by Nancy Mitford, was abandoned by her parents at an early age and raised by her Aunt Emily, who proved to be an excellent mother. Her childhood involved Alconleigh, home of her Uncle Matthew, Aunt Sadie, and their many children. The second daughter, Linda, becomes Fanny’s closest friend, and her story is the focus of The Pursuit of Love.

The book begins as a childhood romp, with a wacky family being wacky. For example, one favorite ritual was the child hunt, in which a couple of the children were sent out to be chased by Uncle Matthew and his four bloodhounds:

This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish week-enders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls. My uncle seemed to them like a wicked lord of fiction, and I became more than ever surrounded with an aura of madness, badness, and dangerousness for their children to know.

As is the case with lots of novels from this period, a lot of the behavior is appalling once you stop and think about it, but Mitford treats it with a light touch, not denying the times when their childhood was difficult, but also not being accusatory. She sticks to the child’s perspective in those early chapters.

Eventually, Fanny moves to the story of Linda’s adulthood, which begins with a whirlwind romance and marriage, and another whirlwind romance and marriage, and finally another whirlwind romance. With each romance comes a personal transformation, from conservative German socialite, to Communist crusader, to French fashionista. Mostly, she just looks to be swept away with feeling, just as, when a child, she was swept away with passion for the various animals she encountered.

Fanny writes of Linda with affection, not pretending that all her choices were right, but always with sympathy for who Linda is. She is, as it happens, not unlike Fanny’s own mother, known in the family as The Bolter. This affectionate lens is one of the things I liked about the book. It’s also often quite funny, even in the face of war and tragedy. The turn toward seriousness is handled well, with plenty of levity included, but not so much that it takes away from the seriousness. There were a few uncomfortable political moments here are there, but they were never so uncomfortable as to take away from my overall pleasure in the book. And it was a pleasure. I’m looking forward to reading Love in a Cold Climate very soon.

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Faithful Place

Frank Mackey was far from my favorite character in The Likeness. He caused all sorts of trouble for Cassie and Sam, largely because of his own arrogance. So I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend a whole book with him. But I don’t need characters to be likable for a book to be good (and Rob in In the Woods is not at all likable by the end), so I picked up Faithful Place assuming that I’d at least get a good crime story (and a cold case crime — my favorite!) even if I didn’t care much for the central character. And by the end of the book, I found myself liking Frank more than I expected.

The story involves the disappearance of Frank’s girlfriend from his teenage years. The two grew up in a poor neighborhood known as Faithful Place, and they made a plan to escape their disapproving families and go to England. But on the night they were to leave, Rosie never showed up. Frank assumed she left on her own, so he did the same, staying in Dublin but never returning to his old neighborhood.

Now, decades later, Rosie’s suitcase has been found hidden in an old building in the neighborhood. Did Rosie leave without it? Or did she never leave at all?

While not an official detective on the case, Frank follows the investigation closely and even, of course, does some detecting on his own. This requires him to get back in touch with his family, after years of speaking only to his sister Jackie. His father still drinks, his mother still yells, and his siblings seem as unable to get away as ever.

This mystery doesn’t have as many complications as The Likeness and In the Woods. In fact, it wasn’t particularly difficult to work out who the likely killer was. (I wavered between two people for most of the book.) But it seems that the complications that matter in Tana French’s books are those in the detective’s lives. And here, I found plenty to appreciate.

Frank’s story is not new or original, but I liked seeing how this abrasive person was shaped and watching him grapple with that shaping. This is a story about a decent man who was never taught how to be decent. French also complicates the killer’s story in ways that I found satisfying, but that do not let them off the hook. It’s a good, solid mystery thriller. It’s not as inventive as the previous two books, but I thought the pace was a little better (it’s the shortest of the three books). And I’m already looking forward to reading Broken Harbor.

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The Parking Lot Attendant

As this novel by Nafkote Tamirat opens, its unnamed narrator lives in a colony on an unnamed island with her father. The colonists are seeking to form their own country, and the colony’s mysterious leaders, the Danga, are suspicious of the narrator and her father from the moment they arrive. The narrator isn’t sure why the suspicion or even why they are there on the island, but it appears to have something to do with a man named Ayale.

From there, most of the book consists of the narrator’s memories of her life in Boston, where she got to know Ayale, a parking lot attendant and apparent center of the Ethiopian community. An ambitious high school student, she’s pleased with his attention, and she’s eager to please him with her intellectual growth. As Ayale appears to be acting as a sort of mentor to the narrator, her father is understandably wary, but he mostly allows her to see him whenever she wants, although she ends up spending more time with him than her father realizes.

As the book goes on, the relationship becomes more contentious because the narrator begins to understand that Ayale is involved with something he’s keeping from her.

For most of the book, the story moves slowly, with each dispute between the narrator and her father and the narrator and Ayale being recounted in detail. She’s a smart and observant teenager, and she wants to know what’s going on, and she wants respect and affection from the father figures in her life. It was easy at times to forget that everything in these chapters would lead to an island exile, yet the question always lurks in the background, making the relationship with Ayale even more unsettling.

I enjoyed watching the story unfold and wondering what was going to happen to lead them to the island. And as the book goes on, more odd happenings occur. Members of the Ethiopian community are getting murdered. The narrator is getting silent phone calls at night. There appear to be people following her. Ayale asks her to deliver packages under suspicious circumstances.

Yet, finally, when the truth is revealed, everything happens quickly, almost too quickly. Some of the secrets that are revealed are big, almost too big. And the consequences are enormous. This story of a Ethiopian-American teenager growing up in Boston turns into a huge conspiracy of which she is the linchpin. I needed a little more time to breathe in the final chapters, when the book takes a turn toward the preposterous. Although the groundwork for some of the conclusion was laid in the early chapters on the island, it still came out of nowhere for me, and I would have appreciated a little more time building that island world as carefully as the world of Boston’s Ethiopian community had been built.

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2018 in Review

Happy New Year, everyone! In recognition of the new year, I’m continuing my tradition of looking back at my reading from the previous year. This year, I read 93 books, falling a few books short of my loose goal of 100. But I don’t fret much about that goal. Ninety-something books is typical for me. I just set a goal of 100 to push myself to make reading a priority.

And, this year, I did spend too much time on Internet rage black holes. I’m hoping in 2019 to find a way to enjoy the pleasures of social media, without allowing myself to get into rabbit holes of nastiness. Social media has been extremely useful for me for social interaction, as well as staying informed, particularly about events and issues that are important but that may not make headlines. But, at the same time, so much of social media seems all about the quick snap judgment (positive and negative), and less about nuanced discussion that builds understanding.

On top of that, it’s hard to get on social media today without getting bombarded by political discussion. I know many people find this conversation valuable, and I’ve benefited from both listening to and participating in such conversations. And social media is often a important way for people whose voices aren’t always heard to share their perspectives. But I wish there were an easy way to enjoy light chat when that’s all I have time and energy for without being tempted into yet another enraging rabbit hole that I can’t actually do much about. Sigh.

But we’re here for books, right? Let’s talk books.

Looking back over my reading from 2018, these twelve books stand out to me most.

 

 

  1. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson. A heart-breaking exploration of the plight of single women in the 19th century.
  2. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. A complex story of the criminal justice system and its effect on a marriage.
  3. Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith. A beautifully written epistolary novel about an observant and opinionated Appalachian woman.
  4. Hild by Nicola Griffith. A complex and immersive (and highly speculative) novel about the early years of Saint Hilda of Whitby.
  5. Home by Toni Morrison. A painful, but ultimately hopeful story about the aftermath of trauma.
  6. Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King. A new Russell/Holmes mystery, this one is a proper romp.
  7. The Likeness by Tana French. The second Dublin Murder Squad book, which is a lot of fun if you can get past the ridiculous premise.
  8. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. This post-War ghost story was possibly even better the second time around.
  9. Old Filth by Jane Gardam. A sad story about a man who appears successful but is haunted by early trauma.
  10. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. A multigenerational saga about a Korean Christian family in Japan.
  11. So Lucky by Nicola Griffith. A novella in which a woman’s life is transformed by disease.
  12. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. A delightful story about a slave who escapes to freedom and adventure.

Also notable are One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson, The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall, Transcription by Kate Atkinson, The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff, The Overstory by Richard Powers, Educated by Tara Westover, The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim, and More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton. I also indulged in my Ruth Rendell love by reading two of her early novels (To Fear a Painted Devil and The Secret House of Death). This was also the year that I finished Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. And Jenny and I finished reading Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels.

As usual, when I look back over the books I enjoyed, my reading year looks pretty great. But I also read an awful lot of middling books; however, only one book (Stoner) ended up really irritating me. (Minority view, I know, but there it is.)

This year, I intend to stick with my 100-book goal. I read a lot from my own shelves last year, making exceptions mostly for The Tournament of Books and a few other random choices throughout the year. I’d like to continue with that. Over the past few years, I’ve found that about 30% of the books I read are by authors of color, and I feel pretty good about that. It’s getting where I don’t have to put in a lot of extra effort to make that happen. I’d like to read more translated books and international books, but I’m not setting a definite goal. It’s just that both of those went down a bit in the last year, when they were already a low proportion of my reading.

And, as discussed previously, I’m going to think about how to get a suitable balance to my social media use, so I can continue enjoying the book chat without getting caught up in non-helpful, unproductive, and ultimately stressful rabbit holes.

 

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Speak No Evil

Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil is the story of two best friends, Niro and Meredith, both high school seniors in Washington, DC. Niro, who carries most of the narrative, is a track star bound for Harvard, but his future starts to be in doubt when his father discovers that Niro is gay. Niro’s father, committed to his traditional Nigerian and Christian culture, is having none of it, and he insists that Niro commit himself to prayer and counseling and avoidance of so-called “sin.”

Of course, it’s not so simple as that. But Niro tries. Having always felt inferior to his older brother, OJ, Niro wants his parents’ approval. But he also craves independence. And much of the first part of the novel, where Niro is the narrator, focuses on his dilemma. How can he honor his parents and be true to who he is?

As all this is going on, Meredith is growing increasingly distant, not answering Niro’s texts, ignoring him at school, even hanging out with one of the boys who bullies Niro. Some tension between them is inevitable, given that they were once considered a couple and Meredith was involved in the chain of events that led to Niro’s father learning he was gay. But it’s still a loss for Niro, as Meredith was someone he could always rely on for support, and now he’s left to figure out these big questions on his own.

In Part 2 of the book, Meredith takes over as narrator, and we learn a bit about how she felt about Niro. But this section, set several years in the future, feels more like an epilogue than part of the main narrative, even though it amounts to about a fourth of the book. I wish this section had either functioned as an actual epilogue, lasting only a chapter, making the book almost entirely Niro’s story — or that it Meredith’s narration could have made up fully half of the novel, adding layers to the narrative. As it is, it’s neither Niro’s story alone, nor Niro and Meredith’s shared story.

Another interesting option would have been to include Niro’s parents as narrators, making it a more of a shared story among many people who cared about Niro, but not always in the right way. There’s a lot of complexity to this story and the way Niro juggles his various identities and loyalties, but it sometimes feels like the book is just skimming the surface.

Still, I enjoyed reading this and was fully invested in Niro’s happiness and growth. I wish it had been a great book, as I could see the potential for greatness here. But it’s still a good book that I was glad to read.

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